It was a crime that sent shockwaves far beyond Puerto Rico.
Jorge Steven López Mercado’s decapitated, dismembered and partially burned body was found along a remote roadside near Cayey in November 2009. Juan José Martínez Matos is serving a 99-year prison sentence for López’s death after he pleaded guilty last May to stabbing the gay teenager, but this gruesome murder shined a very harsh spotlight upon the epidemic of LGBT violence in Puerto Rico.
Eighteen LGBT Puerto Ricans have been murdered over the last year and a half—including three who were found dead over the span of 72 hours earlier this month. Alejandro Torres Torres was found stabbed to death in his Ponce home on June 4. Karlota Gómez Sánchez, a 19-year-old transgender woman, was found shot to death in a Santurce intersection on Monday, June 6. Authorities discovered Ramón “Moncho” Salgado’s body along a highway near Humacao on Puerto Rico’s eastern coast on June 8.
Ashley Santiago, a 31-year-old trans woman, was found stabbed to death in her Corozal home in April 2010. Emanuel Adorno Ayala later confessed to stabbing the popular hair stylist more than a dozen times. A judge in February sentenced him to 111 years in prison.
In addition to these 18 deaths, a number of LGBT Puerto Ricans have also been attacked in recent months. And for LGBT advocates, the refusal by many of the island’s leading political and religious figures to publicly address the issue speaks volumes.
José Ortíz allegedly attacked Francheska González, 22, as she pumped gas at a Río Piedras gas station on April 18. She suffered a fractured vertebra, and Ortíz reportedly kicked González in her head and throughout her body. Police arrested Ortíz a few days later in Santurce after local residents reported that he and a group of men were robbing and assaulting trans women in the San Juan neighborhood.
“As someone who grew up in Puerto Rico and has been very active in its LGBT community, this is a heart-wrenching moment,” said Pedro Julio Serrano of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in a June 10 statement. Serrano, who grew up in Ponce, also founded Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, an LGBT advocacy group on the island. “Our thoughts and sympathies go out to all of the victims’ loved ones at this difficult time. Justice must prevail. This is about members of the Puerto Rican LGBT community feeling safe in their communities and being able to take care of the ones they love. We call upon the authorities and political leaders to effectively address this epidemic of anti-LGBT violence. This must stop now.”
So why have 18 LGBT Puerto Ricans been murdered over the last year and a half?
Serrano said anti-LGBT rhetoric from Puerto Rican religious and political leaders is the root of the problem. In a series of interviews with Colorlines over the last several days, he singled out Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz. Serrano pointed out the Rev. Wanda Rolon described Ricky Martin as “an ambassador from hell” after he came out in March 2010. Cardinal Luis Aponte Martínez has said the gay singer needs to stop promoting “the aberration that homosexuality is.”
Serrano and other activists and politicians — including New York Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, New York City Councilmembers Rosie Mendez and Melissa Mark Viverito — have also repeatedly blasted Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño for his continued silence on these deaths. “Time and again, there has been an unacceptable, deafening silence from Puerto Rican authorities in response to the brutal violence and murders,” said Mark-Viverito, who was born and raised in San Juan, after a July 2010 press conference on the steps of New York City Hall at which she and other politicians and activists stood in solidarity with LGBT Puerto Ricans. “Most egregious and irresponsible has been the lack of response from Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño who has been absent in the dialogue, media response and community building which has taken place after each and every violent act.”
Fortuño told the Spanish language television network NTN 24 in July 2010 that he did not want to interfere with the investigations into the murders. He has remained silent about the subsequent deaths that have taken place.
“When we have silence from the governor, that is also implicit in the violence,” said Serrano. “The message that the heads of government are sending is that our lives aren’t worth it.”
When Colorlines asked Assistant Attorney General Tom Perrelli whether President Barack Obama had any plans to raise these deaths with Fortuño during his visit to Puerto Rico on June 14, he said that the Justice Department is “aware of those incidents and we are reviewing them.”
“As leaders of the United States and Puerto Rico, they must send a strong message that hate is not a value,” said Serrano. “Most importantly, Gov. Fortuño needs to finally break his silence on the epidemic of anti-LGBT violence that has taken the lives of 18 Puerto Ricans in the past year and a half. He has to say—unequivocally—that Puerto Ricans will be treated equally under the law, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity and that his administration will do everything in its power to curb this anti-LGBT violence.”
Puerto Rico’s anti-hate crime law includes both sexual orientation and gender identity, but Serrano and other activists have long-complained that local prosecutors rarely use them. He was among the LGBT activists who met with Puerto Rican Attorney General Guillermo Somoza, Puerto Rico Police Chief José Figueroa Sancha; Fortuño’s security advisor, Javier Varela; hate crimes prosecutor Janet Parra; general prosecutor Obdulio Melendez, Linda Ortiz from the federal Justice Department and other officials in San Juan on June 15.
“They were very willing to hear everything we had to say,” said Serrano.
Serrano said officials agreed to a prosecutorial protocol for hate crimes and to implement a new police academy curriculum for new officers. Those who are already under the force will undergo retraining. Prosecutors and police officers will begin to attend these trainings in August.
“We will continue to meet and work with them on the issue,” said Serrano, noting he spoke directly with Fortuño’s cabinet members. “They have the governor’s ear and they have to send a message to him that he has to speak out. The country expects him to speak out against LGBT violence. He needs to speak out on this violence. If not, his silence is shameful and complicit and I told this directly to the two cabinet members who were present. We are willing to meet with Fortuño if he is open.”
Serrano told Colorlines that an FBI agent contacted him on June 13 to request more information about the 18 LGBT Puerto Ricans who have died. FBI spokesperson Harry Rodriguez confirmed that an agent from the agency’s San Juan office spoke with the activist. He declined to provide specific details.
“The pressure is definitely working,” said Serrano. “People are paying attention. Things are moving forward.”
Meanwhile, LGBT Puerto Ricans and the families of those who have been killed continue to try and make sense of the violence against their community. Gómez’s mother and sister attended an LGBT Pride parade in Boquerón on June 12—three days after her funeral. Serrano also met with López’s family while in Puerto Rico earlier this month.
“There are no words to express the loss,” he said. “Nothing will bring him back. They are doing as best as they can without him. They are people filled with a lot of love—profound and pure love.”
Serrano added the most recent LGBT deaths in Puerto Rico are yet another painful reminder to the López family of their loss. “They have to relive that,” he said, noting the Lópezes and other Puerto Rican families continue to grieve for their murdered loved ones. “No person should have to go through this pain. They are the perfect example that love conquers hate. We will prevail.”